Over the past half year 300,000 students from around the world have been coding away using Microsoft technology to prepare their entries in the annual Imagine Cup contest. This week 440 of them gathered in Cairo to battle it out in various categories relating to software development and visual media.

In 2009 an Australian team, Team SOAK, took out the most hotly contested category of software design against 60 finalists in Paris. This year’s Australian team, eGreen, failed to match that feat, getting knocked out of the running before the semi-finals.

The category was eventually won by team Sytech, a collaborative community service from Romania. The prize for the popular embedded development category was won by team Wafree from Korea, which had developed a system for managing the farming of the insect Coleoptera Lucanidae as an alternative food source.

The theme for this year’s Imagine Cup was the United Nation’s eight Millennium Development Goals relating to improving human health and care for the environment, and the results were diverse. Projects included an augmented reality system from Israel that could project a game onto the surface of a Rubik’s Cube, and a virtual whiteboard from Poland made from a Wii remote and an ordinary projector hooked up to a notebook PC.

The Irish team’s entry also used Wii remotes to create a game to train surgeons to perform cataract removal surgery, while the South African team iSign developed a system for translating gestures from sign language into spoken English and vice versa.

eGreen team-mates Donovan Ryan, James Thompson and Xharmagne Carandang’s project was a green products rating system that could track the entire environmental impact of consumer products, including in their production and transportation.

It was that transportation component that proved most challenging to measure, with the team creating a system that integrated RFID readers at checkpoints to track the distance that goods travelled from their place of manufacture to sale. Consumers log in to check their eGreen rating through the website or their mobile phone, or through a Vista sidebar gadget.

Carandang says one of the biggest challenges was working with multiple sources of data to determine the final rating, including manufacturing data such as carbon emissions, water reduction, recycle-ability and chemical composition, a well as the transport data from each checkpoint.

She says it was the integration between the different technologies, particularly the hardware, that was most difficult, such as hooking the RFID scanner up to the client applications. Hence they programmed the scanners to push messages to the applications, rather than have the applications constantly polling the scanners, using Windows Communication Foundation.

An XML web service integrates data and exchanges eGreen information, and the whole system is designed to communicate with third-party applications.

“Since the problem we chose to tackle has quite a bit of complexity, we chose to use the power of combining a wide range of software and hardware technologies to help us implement the solution,” Carandang says.

“Despite the research that we’ve done, there is still so much more out there that can lead to a comprehensive rating, so with this in mind we tried to design our system to be flexible and extendable,” Carandang says. “So we used things like object-oriented-ness, multi-tier architecture, and well established designed patterns and emerging technologies to ensure the implementation of more functions.”

Data is stored in SQL Server and transformed using Hibernate into objects for use in the Microsoft .NET framework. The client side was developed using Microsoft Silverlight and Windows Presentation Foundation, despite the team having initially no experience with the technology.

Despite their lack of success this year, the team remains interested in seeking commercial opportunities for eGreen, and is considering having another tilt at the challenge next year.

This year’s contest was the sixth time Microsoft has staged the Imagine Cup. According to Microsoft’s chief software architect Ray Ozzie, who opened the event, the purpose of the Imagine Cup is not just about Microsoft’s business goals.

“But, of course, there is a secondary positive impact in that as a part of solving those problems, we bring Microsoft technologies more in front of students,” Ozzie says. “Students can use Microsoft technologies side by side with many of the other technologies they’ve learned. And, of course, that helps us.”